"There are three basic reasons why all of us have a stake in the health of the Catawba River and the creeks and streams that make up its watershed: 1) It's a priceless environmental treasure; 2) it supplies drinking water to many people in York, Chester and Lancaster counties; 3) it creates and maintains jobs."
Those are the words of Donna Lisenby in a guest column that appeared in The Herald in 1997. The commentary goes on to warn of increasing pollution of the river and its tributaries and the danger that North Carolina could drain much of the watershed before the water reached South Carolina.
It was an especially prescient commentary in light of what has happened since, especially the ongoing dispute over a proposal by North Carolina to divert millions of gallons of water a day out of the river basin to meet the needs of Kannapolis and Concord. And, interestingly enough, the commentary was written months before Lisenby was named the Catawba's first riverkeeper.
She had been an advocate for the river for years before becoming Riverkeeper, and her reverence for nature has been a lifelong passion. She once said that as a child playing outdoors, she felt "rocked in the cradle of the earth."
As Riverkeeper, she has been an employee of the nonprofit Catawba River Foundation. The job confers no special legal authority, but Lisenby has used her bully pulpit to shine the light on polluters and speak out when she believes the river is being misused.
She has testified before city and county councils, haggled with Duke Energy over its oversight of the river and served as one of the chief combatants in the battle against the transfer of water out of the river basin. She is credited with being the first to alert residents of the upper basin about the proposed transfer.
Lisenby helped oppose a regional waste treatment plant in South Carolina, forced North Carolina to give part of the Catawba near Morganton, N.C., a protective trout-water designation and fought for greater access to Lake James. She also has regularly patrolled the Catawba and Lake Wylie with an eye out for polluters.
Last week, Lisenby announced that she will be moving on. Lisenby, 43, will be the new riverkeeper for the Watauga River in the North Carolina mountains in early March. She will form Waterkeepers Carolina, coordinating the 14 riverkeeper and coastkeeper programs in the two Carolinas.
Lisenby said she hopes to work on broader environmental issues, particularly air pollution. The environmental group Appalachian Voices, her new employer, has a record of fighting mountain pollution and a major source, coal-fired power plants.
Those who share her love of the environment can rest assured that she will be a tireless, articulate and effective advocate for the cause. As for those who would abuse the environment: Watch out.